Kim Fay Falls into the Rhythm of Life in Kratie
Excerpted from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
Kratie at seven in the morning is similar to Kratie at noon and Kratie at sundown. Mellow. Midway up the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and Stung Treng, this is an old colonial town that does not know how to not relax. Even progress goes at its own pace here, as a cement mixer passes by on the back of a pony cart. Kratie has a sedative quality, and it was in this state that I set out from my guesthouse on a rented bicycle, with a water bottle, a camera, and a Mekong Discovery Trail booklet tucked into my basket.
I headed north on the road that trailed the river, and I made it just a few hundred yards beyond town when I realized that it was already uncomfortably hot. Turning back, I stopped at the first stall at the market, bought a big hat and shawl, and covered myself from head to toe. Wrapped in this cocoon, with only the backs of my hands showing, I cycled for hours while the river ebbed and flowed from view, the shadows of sugar palms skipped over the road, and people went about their daily business in the shade of their modest wooden homes, which were lifted off the ground on stilts.
When I returned to my guesthouse that afternoon, I was addicted and asked if I could rent the bike again the following day. I set out even earlier, my muscles already aching from my first ride. This time I did not go for the countryside surrounding Kratie, but clumsily carried my bicycle down the steep steps to the boat landing. There it was hauled onto a canoelike wooden boat (so small it had only two facing benches) that was the ferry to Koh Trong Island in the middle of the river.
Along with a handful of locals, I was deposited on a vast, flat beach, where a cow that was curled up for a nap could not even be bothered to glance at us. I dragged my bike across the sand to a bumpy, slat-wood path, which led to a deeply rutted trail up a hill to the dirt road that circled the island. The morning was so quiet, and as I set off, I was intensely aware of everything around me. The petals of flame trees scattered on the ground. Butterflies drifting as if a breeze had come to life. Chickens pecking at fallen jackfruit. Spirit altars like small bird houses perched in front of homes on stilts. I cut off on a side path through the center of the island, and the landscape opened, its pastoral fields smelling of wood smoke, hay, and the lanky grazing cows. Without the shelter of trees over the road, every passing cloud was a gift, a relief from the sodden heat.
It was possible to pedal for great stretches without seeing a single person. When I did, it would be a grandfather napping in the shade of a roadside food stall or a naked child emerging up a bank with an armload of mangoes. The mango trees were laden at that time of year, and when I passed the one group of children I saw the whole day, they did not go crazy shouting "hello! hello!" but just smiled and gave a nonchalant wave before returning to eating the ripe green fruit.
It was as if, by coming out to the island, a person belonged, no matter her hair or skin color. To be there was just that: to be. The feeling stayed with me throughout the afternoon and back to town, where the day came to a close in perfect Kratie style, with a cold beer at one of the little café tables on the promenade while the sun set over the river.
Getting to Kratie
Buses to Kratie leave Phnom Penh from Psar Thmei market, usually around 8:00 a.m. Numerous companies make this journey. Kim used the Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Company, whose office is at the market. While tickets can be purchased the morning of travel, she suggests buying in advance, to get decent seats at the front of the bus. Buses are basic, and the ride takes six to eight hours, with stops along the way for food and toilet breaks. Food at the roadside restaurants is acceptable, but not terrific. The same goes for the toilets. Bring your own toilet paper.
Biking around Kratie
Although it's not essential, try to pick up a copy of Mekong Discovery Trail while you're in Kratie. This booklet has basic bike route information, including the road north out of town and around Koh Trong Island. A bike with good tires and brakes can be rented from the You Hong II guesthouse (see below). Make sure to bring lots of water, a hat, a scarf/shawl, and your own sunscreen, since purchasing sunscreen at the market is nearly impossible. Don't underestimate the sun. The backs of Kim's hands-the only part of her body exposed-were blistered for days after her two rides. Also, keep in mind that there are no public toilets anywhere on these bike rides.
You Hong II (U Hong II)
Accommodation choices are limited in Kratie, and not all are appealing. The first night, Kim stayed in a guesthouse that was swarming with cockroaches. When she mentioned this as the reason for leaving, the manager shrugged and said, with little concern, "They come in to play with the light." This led her to the You Hong II, which she highly recommends. The rooms are clean, the fans work, and there are en suite bathrooms-all for less than $10 a night. The ground floor restaurant is also quite charming (especially during blackouts), serving good food to travelers as well as those few expatriates working in town. A copy of the Mekong Discovery Trail can be borrowed here. The guesthouse is located just off the river, off the road at the south end of the market.
Of eating and drinking in Kratie, Peter Walter adds: Walking along the river, I stumbled onto a long stretch of drink and snack huts basking in the glow of the late afternoon sun. After picking a spot, I was soon enjoying a bottle of ice-cold beer. The proprietor, a middle-aged mother of two girls, offered me some snacks, including the local favorite of an unhatched chick still inside its egg. Sticking with my drink, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the last rays of the setting sun before it disappeared behind the opposite bank of the river.
Once it was dark, the lady and her teenage daughter caught me by surprise as they started racing around their tables, lunging after fat, buzzing, cicadalike insects that had arrived under the cover of dusk and were flying all around the place. The pair successfully caught about two dozen of the critters, methodically plucking off the wings and legs before skewering the meaty remains and cooking them in a small charcoal oven. The proprietor explained that they planned to bring them home as a snack for her other daughter, who was still a toddler.
Published on 11/14/10